Prepare now for 2010 elections
Publishers’ Auxiliary/November 2009
U.S. federal elections are a year away. Numerous other jurisdictions will conduct elections between now and then. It’s not too early to begin outlining your election coverage.
Election coverage is one of the most demanding and exhaustive tasks that newsrooms undertake. The process will be smoother for newsrooms – and the coverage more relevant to readers – if you take early steps.
Each newsroom must approach coverage based on its resources and its particular lineup of races. One is to identify and examine the “elements” of election coverage. Here is one blueprint:
- Interviewing candidates – Newspapers are a primary source for in-depth information about candidates, especially their positions on a variety of issues. Reporters must be as well schooled on the issues as the candidates in order to produce stories with substance and meaning.
- Letters to the editor – More newspapers restrict endorsement letters due to orchestrated writing campaigns. The problem must be addressed. Don’t forget, however, that the exchange of ideas remains the lifeblood of editorial pages and the heart of newspapers.
- Editorial endorsements – Newspapers have a responsibility, even an obligation, to weigh in on those individuals who they believe will best represent the interests of their communities. Editors and reporters usually have a distinctive insight on candidates.
- Graphics – Graphics play an important role in all aspects of election coverage – from profiling candidates to reporting vote totals. Graphics, when done right, are another entry point into the story and give readers immediate information.
- Utilizing the Web – Newspaper Web sites are a vital element of coverage. They offer opportunity for leading the way on breaking news, to supplement analysis of issues, and to facilitate exchange among readers and candidates.
- Voter guides – These guides, if produced, must be viewed as one slice of election coverage. They must be coordinated carefully so they complement and do not diminish other ongoing coverage.
This is but one starting list, and newsrooms are likely to identify other “elements” of coverage by convening a brainstorming session. For example:
Judges are arguably among the most influential of elected officials. Newspapers should not be afraid to scrutinize judicial candidates and even offer a recommendation, especially if the races are of high visibility. Doing so requires extra effort, however, and therefore extra planning.
School referendums pose special circumstance, too. Schools are at the heart of community life, and newspapers are supposed to be boosters of quality education. That said, responsible reporting means examining issues and writing stories that could prompt “yes” as well as “no” votes.
What are criteria for statewide candidates who seek local coverage? How do you follow the campaign of a local candidate seeking a congressional office? Have you developed a checklist for election night so staff is prepared for the expected and unexpected results?
Solid election coverage requires solid planning. Campaigns include many red-letter dates and events. As crowded as this calendar appears with filing dates and candidate forums and endorsement conventions, the newsroom’s “internal” calendar will be even more detailed. When must candidate questionnaires be distributed and answers compiled? What are the deadlines for letters to the editor? When will endorsements be published?
Election coverage is like sports coverage. Certain elements are standard procedure. Preseason previews give readers a glimpse of teams’ strengths and weaknesses. Candidates’ announcements shed light on their strengths.
The grind of a sports season offers opportunities for highlighting individuals’ roles and to report on team development. Months-long campaigns provide ample chance for candidates to exchange press releases on what they would bring to the table and how they would best serve constituents.
Through it all, editors and reporters must strive for consistency and balance. That’s best accomplished by considering all elements of election coverage, then evaluating each step from season beginning to season end.